Sunday, May 1, 2011

Aurora Magazine: "Academic Freedom"

As a follow-up to a previous post on the "Academic Freedom" illustration gig for Aurora Magazine, here's the final designs and a scan of the cover. There's some subtle differences between this version and the work-in-progress ones appearing below. Mostly re-tweeking to better accommodate the real estate of the actual print dimensions (ex: expanding the blackboard size horizontally + extending the logs out a couple inches to the right). It felt rather empty and weird leaving so much open breathing room, but after seeing a proof of the cover with the mastheads and logos pasted up, I got excited to see the final product. When all is said and done and all the additional verbage is added, it all came together. It was a great opportunity to interact with some professional folks, who especially took a real flying leap o' faith with a markedly different style in their publication.  

And wow - hard to believe most of this post was written way back in December of 2010 - sometimes there's such a time-delay with some projects. Add to that the malleable concept of real-time in real-life versus the pace and perception of events as posted in blogworld. This gig was wrapped up one day before deadline, delivered the day it was due, and juggled amidst packing and moving stuff to storage - on top of winding down the fall semester. I was glad to be able to rework the concept enough to where everybody was happy, from producing the initial spread of different directions to mix & match between, and ride out the evolutions all the way through to the end. Even if I didn't get to feature Pepto-Bismol Bear...

The idea of using the official UAF Nanook mascot to physically loom over an academic as a silent, ah, overbearing (sorry) presence works metaphorically as both perceived administrative pressure and/or as potentially hostile external forces. Graphically, there's just barely (sorry) enough symbolic classroom-ish elements to provide proper context, and even one of the tweaks made was to the particular time shown on the clock. Also posted here are the preliminary roughs and final print versions for a couple interior spots, and the end results spotlighting how things can change in a heartbeat with regards to the safe, warm embrace of the system versus a total mauling.
I was also interviewed for the article in question about "academic freedom" in my role as an art teacher at the university, and what follows below the fold are my unabridged notes done partly in advance and partly afterwards in reflection:

Like the average person out on the street, most students do not want to court controversy or even debate issues. Yet it’s incumbent upon an instructor to facilitate exposure to alternative concepts, and address issues within the context of a classroom setting. As a teacher, one is afforded the opportunity to take advantage of an institutional buffer-zone, and foster a safe, non-threatening environment to examine and freely discuss unpopular issues and taboo subject areas. You are also by default in a mentoring position as far as setting an example of professional conduct, so personal freedom of expression should be simultaneously cultivated within, and tempered by accountability. Instead of the luxury of lobbing from the relative safe shelters of the internet, publications and galleries, directly engaging people can be a risky and rewarding first-hand experience. In an art class, probably moreso than any other, you will routinely encounter gray areas where artwork that may be overtly racist, sexist, homophobic, violent etc. is presented. To these ends I always start each session with a disclaimer that, for some, there may be uncomfortable topics over the course of a semester. And in such instances, it becomes a teachable moment, unless it violates university standards of conduct, in which case it's out the door. The overwhelming majority of the time there's never any problem, but it's prudent to announced a caveat well in advance (CYA fine print in the syllabus). Another example would be the drawing and display of non-sexual works depicting nudity - that alone will always be a minor point of friction, as naked people have the uncanny ability to provoke all sorts of reactions.

There is considerable overlap with the complimentary freedoms of speech and academic freedom. But this is tempered by the reality of the silent leash that, particularly for non-tenured faculty, the squeaky-wheel syndrome can play a part in whether or not one's contract is renewed. Rights versus responsibility is balanced against self-censorship and threat of reprisal: the right-wing assault on academia was best adopted by David Horowitz's "Academic Bill of Rights" and associated group "Students for Academic Freedom." Given the potential for controversy when opening the can of creative ice-worms, one can argue that a drawing instructor's job is teach just that - how to draw. But in my opinion, that's inseparable from drawing what, and how, and why. The classroom is an entirely appropriate arena within which to learn the ramifications of making certain choices, even the "safe" ones that completely avoid any risk of conflict whatsoever. 

Artists, particularly cartoonists - and especially editorial cartoonists - occupy the nebulous and often un-defined boundaries of personal taste. Arguably the single-most controversial event to occur withing the history of modern art was the 2005 Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, which continued on with the Danish Kurt Westergaard and Swedish 2007 drawings by Lars Vilks and culminated in the Seattle cartoonist going underground to escape legitimate threats to her life for the "Everybody Draw Muhammed Day." Death-threats, attacks, massive protests and arrests, 139-odd people killed, embassies burned - damn those meddlesome cartoonists. An ironic side-note in that Yale University Press published a book "The Cartoons That Shook The World" without any accompanying illustrations of the cartoons in question.
A far cry from the censorship editorial decision to not use my humble homage to The Chancellor's Mustache. "Help! Help! I'm being repressed."

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